Obama’s Empty Words

Despite the disingenuous fuss that has been made about the mention of 1967 borders in the President’s Cairo II speech, Obama really did not say anything, despite standing at the microphone for nearly 50 minutes. In many ways unlike his Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama’s beautiful rhetoric was generally empty of any real meaning, policy or direction. In general, the speech was simply an attempt to reiterate American support for the vague notions of freedom and democracy while linking such ideals to the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the speech – for me at least – simply highlighted the fundamental incongruity and inconsistency that defines the American regional policy. Obama’s speech underlined two major weaknesses in how America views the Middle East (I hesitate to call it a policy): the unsure balance between a regional strategy based on ideals and country-by-country tactics that often contradict those ideals and – associated with this first point – the categorization of the Palestinian struggle as separate and distinct from the Arab Spring in general.

It is not difficult to understand that the mass movements throughout the Arab world have taken and will continue to take very different paths despite the similar complaints and demands of the protesting populations. In both Egypt and Syria, for example, people are standing up over, among other things, unemployment levels, poverty, and the lack of political representation, yet the reaction of the government, the countries’ external ties and internal demographics, and the unique roles of security services and militaries have created very different revolutionaries paths for each country. Logically, then, the United States cannot pursue one policy in every country, without regard to the unique conditions that differentiate each country and population. Said another way, the United States must base its regional strategy on the glorified ideals and human rights that he has so eloquently spoken about time and again while using tactics that are tailored to the specifics of each country; “Case-by-case action is often wise. Case-by-case strategy is not.”

Of course, this idea is hardly new and is exactly what Obama says in his speech. Even the most superficial look at American actions in the region, however, makes it evident that the United States is following a case-by-case strategy with only rhetorical loyalty to the greater concepts that have spurred the revolutions and protests of the Arab Spring. Wavering support for the protesters in Egypt throughout the revolution, abandonment of Bahraini activists (despite Obama’s somewhat surprising inclusion of Bahrain in his speech), and the complete lack of support for those challenging the autocratic rule of American allies in the Gulf clearly demonstrates that, in the eyes of the American government, not all activists are created equally. Obama made no mention of the movements in francophone North Africa or of its oil producing allies in Saudi Arabia – countries that are apparently not of enough consequence to receive American attention or of too much consequence to be held to the ideals upon which the American regional strategy should be based. Obama’s speech did little to resolve “the tension between Obama’s rhetoric of support for reform and the U.S. government’s support for governments that are cracking down on reform.”

Jonathan Wright breaks down the inability to adhere to one regional policy into three questions that will dictate American policy for the country:

  1. What does this regime do to serve or subvert Americans interests in the Middle East? The more the regime serves, the softer the U.S. stance, and vice versa.
  2. What are the chances this particular regime will be overthrown by angry Arabs? The more likely it is to fall, the harder the U.S. stance towards the ruler, and vice versa.
  3. If this regime is overthrown, what is likely to take its place and to what extent would the successor regime serve U.S. interests? This is much harder to judge. The conventional wisdom is that this factor has worked in favour of President Assad, whom the Israelis might prefer to see survive.
Rather than adhering to the global ideal of human rights that Obama repeatedly invoked, the United States has adopted a policy of picking and choosing when and where these global values should be invoked. In a Libya controlled by a defiant Qaddafi, the human right of freedom from persecution and death was worth invading whereas in Bahrain – where activists are being condemned to death for demanding equal rights for the majority of the population (the Shi’a) – Obama has devoted a simple paragraph to the same rights. It is this hypocrisy which is creating, at best, a sense of disillusionment towards American power and, at worst, strong pockets of anti-Americanism.

Lisa Anderson, the President of the American University of Cairo, distinguishes the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya well in the recent issue of Foreign Affairsthe military played a major role in Egypt, there was a massive generational gap amongst the protesters in Tunisia, Qaddafi in Libya created the conditions for civil war by spending his four decades in power by creating an intensely personal leadership cult based on tribal and family connections. The American reaction to these three examples obviously differed greatly – a quick turn against Ben Ali in Tunisia, wavering support for Mubarak in Egypt before siding with protesters and intervention in Libya – demonstrating an understanding that different tactics must be used for different countries. Unfortunately, the American reactions to these conflicts, as well as those in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, were not dictated by a comprehensive regional policy based on American ideals.

By giving another speech insisting that American actions and reactions to the Arab Spring are driven by ideals and the pursuance of human rights rather than a strict realist push for reinforcing American national interests, Obama is continuing to (attempt to) mislead the people of the Middle East. It is clear to the Arabs throughout the region that American aid for their revolutions is not based on what is moral or good, but rather on what is best for the United States. Continuing to pretend that US policy is based on anything else only highlights the hypocrisy strewn throughout Obama’s speech.

Related to the lack of a regional policy how Obama has effectively removed the Palestinian push for freedom from the rest of the Arab Spring. Certainly, the Palestinian situation is far more complicated due to the strong links between the American and Israeli governments and the legal aspects of a decades-long occupation. However by speaking of Palestine separately from Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, Obama is insinuating that the fundamental push for freedom in Palestine is different than that of other countries. The weekly protests against the occupation that are, without fail, violently put down by the Israeli military are defined differently than those protests that took place in Tahrir Square in neighboring Egypt. Both Palestinians and Egyptians are looking to protect their rights and their dignity, yet Palestine is, for the United States, in a different category.

Obama spends time arguing that the minority of Copts in Egypt and Shi’a in Bahrain (although the Shi’a are in the majority in the island nation) should and must be treated equally and given equal rights. With regard to Israel, however, there was no mention of the Palestinian minority that is continuously repressed by the state. The President notes the calls for freedom emanating from Cairo, Benghazi, Sana’a and Damascus, saying that “those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region.” What about the shouts from Hebron and Jerusalem demanding the same dignity that is being won elsewhere in the region? American focus in Israel/Palestine is and has been the security of Israel. Grand ideals such as freedom, democracy and the right to human dignity has taken a backseat.

Palestine is certainly another example of the lack of a unifying doctrine or policy for the Middle East. The United States has a different strategy for Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Saudi Arabia and, importantly, not different tactics to achieve one regional policy based on what Obama calls universal human values. Yet more than simply having a separate Palestinian strategy thrown into the cacophony of American actions in the region, Obama’s speech has reaffirmed that not only is Palestine fundamentally different than the other Middle Eastern countries, but that the push for freedom and dignity in Palestine is fundamentally different.

Obama understands that Palestinians desire a state and the political and personal rights that are currently being denied by Israel, but defines these aims as negotiable. In Egypt human dignity is an unalienable right. In Palestine it is a bargaining chip.

It seems as though the entire speech was an ugly reaffirmation of American hypocrisy in the Middle East. Not only did Obama push forward the meme that American actions in the Middle East are based on a regional strategy rooted in human rights – a claim that is easily proven disingenuous, but he also displayed the American inability to view Palestine and the Palestinian people through a careful look at what is right and moral. For Obama and the American government, the Palestinian push for dignity is not as unalienable as for the rest of the actors in the Arab Spring.

Overall, President Obama said nothing eloquently while demonstrating the wide schism between American actions and American rhetoric. After reading through the speech several times, I am left wondering, as is Daniel Larison, why the President gave the speech at all.

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